Roma Obscura: Bees, Brigands, and the Head of an Apostle

In the small amounts of free time that I’ve had in Rome, I must admit that I have tried to stay away from the big places. Of course, I made a visit to the major basilicas–one feels the need to visit these chief shrines of the Church of Rome–but I must be getting old because I have no desire to fight the crowds (or see seventeen year old girls try to distract Swiss Guards). Instead, I have sought out the more obscure places in Rome.

WALLS069Today I hiked up the Janiculum hill. This ancient hill (as if there is anything in Rome that is not ancient) is fortified by a wall built or rebuilt by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century. Urban VIII probably has my favorite papal coat of arms, it is the crest of the Barberini Family and consists of three bees. His mark is unmistakable as one travels up this hill along this wall. On top of the Janiculum is a lovely park with perhaps the most beautiful view of Rome from anywhere in the city. The whole City is laid out before you and one need not wonder how generations of poets, writers, lovers, emperors, popes and saints have been inspired by this Eternal City. There is also a large monument to Garibaldi atop the hill and in this park; a reminder of when the whole place went to hell and Pio Nono and the Roman Pontiffs lost the city that was (and is) rightfully theirs.

In any event, I did not climb the Janiculum for the view or to scowl at Garibaldi–though I did both; I climbed it to search for an obscure shrine that commemorated a little known event–perhaps one of the most thrilling of its day: the theft of the head of St. Andrew. This precious relic had been in Rome since the days of Pius II in the 15th century. In fact, Pio Secundo had such veneration for St. Andrew, he was reported to have had a special dock constructed to meet the arrival of this relic as it came down the Tiber. When it did arrive, the pope fell to his knees and with tears streaming down his face took possession of the head of Peter’s brother.

Fast forward now, if you will, to 1848. Blessed Pius IX is the reigning Roman Pontiff. Brigands break into St. Peter’s and steal away the head of St. Andrew. The papal guards are in hot pursuit. Not knowing where to go, the thieves–probably Greeks (my speculation)–look around. The Borgo Santo Spirito? No. Back across the Tiber and into the heart of the City–no way. Papal officials and police are everywhere! Ah ha–to the Janiculum! The thieves running full tilt make their way off to the right out of St. Peter’s square, through the colonnade, and over to the Viale Della Mura Aurelie, the road alongside the aforementioned wall of Urban VIII. They run, under cover of darkness, up the winding hill! Winding…and winding…and steep…and winding…until…they lose breath. Suddenly, conscience kicks in. Under one of their arms is the head of an Apostle. What the hell does one do with the head of an Apostle? Perhaps a better question is, will I go to hell for having the head of an Apostle? Fearing damnation at worst, a life of stern looks from Sts. Andrew and Peter at best, the brigands decide that they better get rid of the head. Having almost reached the summit, out of breath, with the shock troops of Pio Nono searching for them, they decide to chuck St. Andrew’s head in the grass alongside the wall. They keep running–probably from their sin and old world curses certain to befall them–and Andrew’s head comes to rest in the grass next to the wall.Papal troops searching the area the next day happen upon a skull. Yep. It checks out–the head of St. Andrew has been recovered. Pius II is no longer rolling over in his grave, Pius IX calls for a celebration and authorizes funds out of the papal treasury to mark the place where the sacred relic came to rest.


A shrine was erected with the inscription:

To Andrew the Apostle, Defender of the City. Here where his head, having been taken away by theft, came to rest, Pope Pius IX dedicates this memorial of the happy finding. 1848. 

An obscure shrine in Rome if there ever was one. Happily visited by me on June 15 in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Where is St. Andrew’s head now? It was under the colossal statue of St. Andrew in St. Peter’s Basilica, but no more. Blame Paul VI–he gave it to the Greek Orthodox Church (as St. Andrew is the patron of Constantinople) as an ecumenical gesture in 1964 after the lifting of the excommunication of 1054. Paul was the pope so I won’t question his decision; but I still don’t have to like it. Oh well. I can still visit one of my favorite obscure shrines in Rome. (Two more views for you below.)



This article, Roma Obscura: Bees, Brigands, and the Head of an Apostle is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Miklos Molnar says:

    Thanks John! They’re a wacky lot, those Andrews. Blessings on your work and family.

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